Learning the basic sciences today

Math excercises by maggiejane CC-BYIn school, many many people tend to construct a narrative around their skills and abilities to explain why one scores better in one subject than another. Probably the most common trope is being semi-illiterate in mathematics, often extended to include the natural sciences. As is regularly being noted, this cliché is common and acceptable even in highly educated circles to the point of pride (and sadly also often tied into sexism). I have become painfully aware of the fact that I have used a variant of this cliché in my personal narrative for far too long, by claiming to have an aptitude for languages but not the hard sciences.

That's a nice way of saying I was too lazy to study for math because I didn't like it. That's true, to a point. Then I came across Khan Academy and realized that this conflates several different issues. If you have not come across Khan Academy yet, it started as a series of YouTube videos of light/chalkboard math training excercises with voice-over. That sounds incredibly dull and boring and they are. Except when you struggle with your homework and would like to backtrack the last three or four lessons. Or twenty.

In my opinion, this inability to rewind is one of the main pillars of the i-suck-at-math cliché. Classical math education progresses steadily when the instructor has instructed, explained some more, handed out homework and graded. Homework serves as the memorization and familiarization mechanism and those who diligently do it can continue to perform adequately. The lazy ones and those which just need a bit longer than others will then get a bad grade but more importantly those holes in that foundation are never filled in and when you graduate you're glad that the whole thing didn't collapse under the weight of yet another abstract, unconnected method of computation.

A slice from the practice gridAnd then Khan Academy set up their excercises and it expertly uses gamification elements and motivators (e.g. speed-solving trophies) combined with their video lectures to aid one to become proficient in all those basic building blocks in a mathematical foundation. Not only do the game elements make slightly addictive, the overview clearly shows what is hidden when you hand in your course books at the end of the semester and are not the instructor: A map of specific arithmetical, algebraic and trigonometric skills and their interdependence. It will not get you an advanced degree but it trains far better than any instructor's approach to homework I have ever seen in recognizing what proficiency means and how easy it is to fool oneself into getting it, i.e. reaching those ten-out-of-ten in a row isn't that trivial when you go beyond the first dozen lectures.

Obviously, Khan Academy does not replace a skilled teacher or commitment on the side of the student. I can only say that I would probably have killed, paid a lot been very thankful for it, had Khan Academy been available when I was in school.

Now, if you haven't gotten an urge yet to reclaim or revisit math, have a look at Vihart's fantastic YouTube channel. OMG binary trees. Oh, and of course the Khan TED talk, too.